Monday, December 19, 2011

The Christmas dinner dilemma

I'm posting this as a bleg to my readers: do any of you find Christmas dinner to be a sort of dilemma?

Picture the typical Catholic family on Christmas day. The whole family has gone to Mass (or, at least, those family members who did not contract a dreaded right-before-Christmas virus or something) either the night before, or at midnight, or fairly early Christmas morning. The wonders under the tree have been unwrapped and explored, removed from frustrating packaging, had batteries added or been assembled; the family has then enjoyed a Christmas breakfast ranging from the simple and ordinary to the elaborate and extreme. Now, the youngest family members are down for a Christmas midday nap; the next youngest are playing with their Christmas toys; the next youngest are settling in for a good Christmas squabble until Dad notices, and so on. Everyone is relaxed, Christmas music plays softly--and Mom heads for the kitchen to get preparations underway for Christmas dinner.

So far, so good, right? But unless Mom is an enthusiastic cook who dreams up and plans her Christmas dinner with joy, what happens next can vary a lot...and so can Mom's mood and her enjoyment of Christmas.

One of the problems for us Americans is that we've had Thanksgiving a month before. Some families find it extremely important for Christmas dinner to be Thanksgiving Mark II, complete with turkey, dressing, cranberries, traditional sides, fine china and glassware, and all the panoply of the Thanksgiving meal, with, perhaps, a few unique Christmas touches (such as, perhaps, a real Christmas pudding, though that is not something I've ever tasted myself). Other desserts may be anything from the much-maligned yet under-appreciated fruitcake to the same sorts of pies one might serve at Thanksgiving; and the whole scene is supposed to convey the rosy glow of a Norman Rockwell painting.

But I have to be honest: I find the idea of cooking what is essentially a second Thanksgiving dinner a month after Thanksgiving rather difficult. On Thanksgiving Day the cook or cooks have the whole day to prepare and cook the meal; on Christmas Day the cook has considerably less time, and unless he or she absolutely loves cooking a huge meal and finds it a relaxing and enjoyable hobby to do so he or she is possibly going to be a bit cranky by the time the family troops in to eat. And, let's face it: preparing what is essentially the same "Holiday Meal" twice in a month is a bit boring. Sure, you could change the main course from a turkey to a ham or vice versa, and you can tinker with the sides and desserts a bit, but you're essentially doing the exact same sort of cooking.

Now, I know that lots of people skip the "Second Thanksgiving" type of Christmas dinner. There are all sorts of other meals that individual families embrace as their own family tradition. For instance, my sister's late mother-in-law reportedly made Christmas a day for a deli spread (which would be great in Texas in years when it's 70 degrees at Christmas). Around here, it's traditional for some people to order tamales for Christmas (or for New Year's). Many cultures have traditional Christmas foods which are very far from what is customary in our culture.

So, my bleg is this: I'd like to hear from readers who have Christmas food traditions that go beyond a second round of Thanksgiving fare. What do you cook and serve? Is it a family custom, a cultural tradition, or some combination? Is Christmas a day to pull out all the stops and go gourmet, or is it a day for a sort of glorified snacking?

Share recipes, if you like! I'm hoping to get some new ideas, having done everything from a fairly traditional Christmas dinner to some decidedly non-traditional choices in years past.

I'm posting this rather late, but I'll check in for comments first thing tomorrow. :)


ElizabethK said...

My usual meal is rigatoni with sausage and peppers, a big salad,a side of sauteed green beans with garlic, lots of bread, and something chocolate for dessert. It's easy, I can make it ahead, and I'm completely sick of Thanksgiving-y meals by Christmas and so this really cuts through the tastebud fatigue. Also, it's red and green--the sauce I mean.

The thing is, this year, I've gotten a heartfelt request for shepherd's pie from two of my daughters. What would go with the pie? I ask. More pie, they answer. So ok, we'll give it a go. It, too, is quick, easy, make ahead and casual. I think I'll throw in a salad, and maybe a chocolate trifle, which I've never had and am in the process of inventing. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

The key, though, is not to cook very much so as to be able to lie around as much as possible. And I do like to cook.

Anonymous said...

I always make a lasagna the day before, or even two days before, fully cooked. Lots of butter and sauce keeps it from drying out. Then I just pop it in and heat it up, add a green salad and bake some garlic bread, done!

~ Ann Marie

Maureen said...

Youngest of 10 here. My Mom used to do hotdogs for dinner when we were little. EVeryone was exhausted, including her, so no big meal.
Now that we have 3 littles, I'll do a ham with basic sides because it's easy.

bearing said...

Good question. I tried to send my paltry stable of readers to you for it.

I've only been the matriarch twice for Christmas dinner, once by accident when everyone got sick and our presents had all been shipped out of state to Grandma's, and once when too pregnant to travel. Our solution has been:

- Christmas Eve dinner with friends
- Take sleepy children to the not-really-at-midnight Midnight Mass on the way home from Christmas Eve dinner
- Cinnamon rolls in the late morning - yay bread machine
- Platter of cookies out all day -- maybe some cheese and crackers -- don't bother with lunch
- A favorite soup on the back burner all day, and fresh-baked bread for dinner. I would add some special touches like sparkling juice for the kids and a champagne half for us, and a dessert (since I rarely make desserts, even a quite simple one, say a cherry crisp, would be received with excitement).

Jennifer Fitz said...

Bearing sent us over here. Our tradition is:

-Christmas eve at great-grandma's house. She cooks southern festive meal -- yes, I suppose it is Thanksgiving II. I'd be just as happy to turn out for light treats an hour later, if she did not want to cook.

-Christmas morning, light yummy food while opening stockings, Mass, presents, brunch. I go for a combination of simple brunch treats in quantity. Croissants, fresh fruit, bacon, brie, basically anything fabulous that grabs my eye at the store. Champagne. Eggs. It scales up easily for guests.

The rest of the day is just nibbling on that, and some simple good thing for supper, fresh pasta or a frozen entree we really like, or leftovers, whatever. Festive but relaxing is the theme.

Anonymous said...

The best and most relaxing Christmas dinner I can recall in our going on nineteen years of marriage was the year we had lots of heavy hors d'oeuvres and soup for the fifteen plus family members who came over. There was some obvious disgruntlement with that arrangement from the "thou shalt have turkey" crowd, and we've never done it again for the extended family get-together. I would be happy with take out chinese and think that those who demand particular ways of eating need to get cookin'.

This year for Christmas Eve and Day we will be just us four. We are making lasagna for Christmas eve, eggs and coffee cake for Christmas morning, probably heated lasagna for lunch, and some beef roast for dinner.

Our later extended family get together at our home for 20-some will be highlighted by beef tenderloin, which was my husband's choice. He gave others the option to bring their choices of sides, thereby stepping out of endless negotiations and power struggles in determining the other parts of dinner.

I am a "don't much care about the content of dinner" person surrounded by "food is love and caring" people in the extended family. I gave up trying to please them a long time ago.

Kelly said...

Within our own family, our Christmas tradition is to have homemade clam chowder on Christmas Eve as a way of remembering that it was traditionally a fast day, and still is in the Eastern Rites.

We are usually with extended family on Christmas Day and both sides usually do the same thing. Someone puts a ham in to bake in the morning, and we eat it in the late afternoon with whatever anyone wants to contribute. Usually someone will make macaroni and cheese, bread, or broccoli casserole as sides, but mostly the ham is eaten with finger foods like a variety of chips, dip, desserts, etc.

Kassi said...

We have a prime rib/standing rib roast (beef), mashed or roasted potatoes, green beans, an iceberg wedge salad topped w/ homemade blue cheese dressing, and perhaps a roasted vegetable of some sort (like brussels sprouts). Dessert is usually pecan pie (and leftover sugar cookies, some of which were made for Santa). Christmas Eve is usually homemade tamales (I'm from South Texas, on the border and in the last couple of years taught myself how to make them) - but along w/ that - as a nod to my Northeastern Heritage, we also have something seafoody - Lobster Bisque and/or Marinated Shrimp. I don't think I've ever had a turkey for Christmas, which has always had a very different meal than Thanksgiving. (In my mind, the holiday meals are: Thanksgiving turkey; Christmas standing rib roast; New Year's Day ham (but this year it might be duck.)

We also attend a Christmas Vigil Mass (and once a midnight Mass.) It does make for a big day for me, but I confess to a real love of cooking and a real love of seeing that our traditional Christmas meal, that only happens once a year, gets served that day - even if I'm drinking a bit more coffee than usual that morning to get it done.

Whatever you decide to serve - have a very Merry Christmas!

Melanie B said...

My mom, who loves to cook and doesn't mind the big spread fancy meal with lots of sides and the good china, often does roast beef for Christmas. Festive but different enough not to be Thanksgiving II. Her traditional Christmas Eve dinner is boiled shrimp and cold cuts with lots of desserts to fill it out.

I wouldn't mind that but our family is developing a different tradition. Since my husband is half Sicilian we've started doing an abbreviated version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. We usually don't get in seven different seafood dishes. I expect as the kids get older it will be easier to have a larger selection. One day we will have the full seven. In recent years we've had lobster and boiled shrimp, stuffed clams or stuffed crabs, or crab cakes, steamed clams or mussels. Our kids love lobster, so it works pretty well as a festive meal for the whole family. The last two years I've also served ensalada noche buena, a festive fruit salad that is a nod to my Texas roots as I got the recipe from a cookbook published by Fonda San Miguel, my favorite Mexican restaurant in my hometown of Austin. It has oranges, pineapple, pomegranate, apples, jicama, in a sour cream pomegranate dressing (kind of like this)

On Christmas day we do a potluck with my husband's extended family. I think this year there will be a baked ham and lasagna, probably cold cuts and olives and cheese. I'm not sure what all else. But all food that can be prepared ahead of time.

scotch meg said...

My tradition (with 3 sons) might or might not work for you. I tend toward long-cooking but minimal in fixing. I.e., roast. Beef, goose, turkey, pork, lamb, whatever. This year it's beef, which probably also means Yorkshire pudding (1.75 C flour, 2 C milk, 2 C water, 4 eggs, beaten and poured into a heated 9x13 pan containing a stick of butter, melted, and cooked for about an hour in the oven with the roast until the edges are browned). The pudding takes about 5 min to prepare and then cooks with the roast. Same thing with an heirloom squash - prick it, put it in a pan in the oven for an hour, allow to cool, cut in half, deseed, scrape out "meat", puree in food processor, warm in oven, serve. Third dish (I have sons) is a green bean casserole - dump everything in a bowl and stir. Only tough part is grating an onion, and I can do that in a food processor, too, if I feel like it. There are enough sweets in stockings, or I can make dessert ahead (pies keep; cakes keep) or serve ice cream.

Basically, what ends up happening is two or three flurries of kitchen activity. (1) put in roast and squash; (2) take out squash, put in pudding and green beans; (3) take out roast, pudding, and casserole, and then any finishing touches. These are separated by about an hour each, so I'm spending most of my time with the family.

I know what I do won't work for everyone - but even with three carnivorous sons and one vegetarian daughter (I do also buy something frozen and veggie just for her), this works for my family.

Michelle said...

I've only been the matriarch of Christmas twice (my elder is three), but my favorite was the first: we delayed the "Christmas dinner" for a few days until my family arrived. I had prepped a squash lasagne for Christmas day, so all I had to do is pop it in the oven and make some brussels sprouts. Last year I directed the cooking from the rocking chair (baby was 3 mo, my Dad is a fantastic sous chef). This year I have procured a standing rib roast, but you have solved my side-dish dilemma - I was looking for something befitting the roast, but instead it will be simple so as to allow more laying about. But we will have a birthday cake for Jesus.

Red Cardigan said...

Wow! I love all of these ideas!

Those of you who do seafood--well, I'm jealous. My DH considers fish of any form a penance, though (he dislikes it, not just the Friday connection) and, alas, I--who dearly love shrimp--developed a shellfish allergy a couple of years ago and can no longer have shellfish at all.

Pasta dishes, now: my husband has strong Italian roots and would probably love those ideas, while my kids have never met an Italian dish they didn't love! That may be a good direction for us. :)

Bearing, thanks for sending your readers--and, again, I love the soup idea! We're quite fond of a hearty soup-as-meal dinner around here.

Again, thanks, all!

Teresa said...

My husband's family was from Slovakia. We keep up the tradition of the meatless meal Christmas Eve - bean soup, mushroom soup, saurkraut, bulbaki (bread balls), oblatki (unleavened bread wafers) and honey. This is our more formal holiday meal, accompanied by ancient prayers, etc. Everyone in the family looks forward to it the whole year.

Christmas Day we'll have some simpler meal - chicken and potatoes, or something. Funny how the fasting meal has become the feast!

Christy P. said...

Our family lives far from family and has developed our own traditional holiday meal -- Chicago style pizza (recipe from Cooks Illustrated).

For Christmas Eve, I am inviting neighbors for several types of fish including: pickled herring (DH family tradition), fish chowder (new this year from current Cooks Illustrated), ceviche (purchased from local Mexican vendor), and possibly shrimp remoulade (January 2012 Bon Appetit) and fish sticks (I have young kids).

I'm all about the notion of embracing what will bring joy to your family and not being bound by *tradition*. We hope that there will be sufficient snow for cross-country skiing on Christmas, and if that is the case we might ditch the pizza and have tomato soup (canned from the garden in August) and quesadillas with a bottle of wine for the adults and call our day a success!

Christy P. said...

Didn't mention that I came over from bearingblog...and will copy my comment there later.

Rebecca in ID said...

Since I'm in charge of the kids' choir for the vigil this year, I have even less time than usual to do anything too fancy. On the other hand, it's Christmas, and I really want to eat good food. So we'll have soup in the afternoon on Saturday and a snack after Mass. Then on Christmas morning I'm serving chocolate croissants I bought from the Co-op; they're waiting in the freezer. With sausages or something. I will do a standing rib roast, which is kind of fancy but not hard to cook, with lovely bread from the Co-op and a baked brie, and a salad and maybe baked sweet potatoes. My mom got some fancy olives to serve along with that, and we have fancy cheese and crackers for snacks later. I will serve a chocolate raspberry torte, which will be the most time-consuming part but I'm going to pretty much do that on Friday so it will be ready.

Lindsay said...

Well, we always go to mass on Thanksgiving but go to mass on Christmas Eve, so in those terms, it would be easier to be elaborate on Christmas. We usually do steak, roast beef, etc... Brunch is usually a nice breakfast casserole. Lots of appetizers and heavy hors-douvres throughout the day.

JMB said...

We do a prime rib or a standing rib or crown pork roast, or a spiral cut ham for Christmas dinner with extended family. The sides are usually Ina Garten's brussel sprouts and roasted squash, along with mashed potatoes, and some sort of green salad. We live in NJ and it's usually cold on Christmas.

A roast is super easy - the oven does the work for you.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad we live in the west. Our Christmas tradition is TAMALES (made my some abuelita in her Mexican kitchen) so I just steam them and serve with beans and rice!

The Road Scholar said...

I host Christmas eve with my family (8) and my sister's family (6). Here's my very simple Christmas meal eaten after 4pm Children's Mass:
Brown Sugar Pork Roast (made in crock pot)
Twice Baked Potatoes (with butter, sour cream, shredded cheese, bacon bits, chives) warmed in oven while at Mass - These are prepared the day before and frozen.
Sweet Potatoes baked in oven with Twice Baked Potatoes
Ratatouille (made a day in advance and warmed up in the oven while at Mass)
Salad (toppings cut up and placed in resealable mini Ziploc containers the day before)
Relish Tray (olives, fresh mozzarella cheese balls, pickles, and other crudites)
Fresh berries (washed and served w/ whipped topping)
Fresh Bread (the only prep I do on Christmas Eve)
Dessert is assorted Christmas Cookies, coffee and egg nog

On Christmas day, I serve foods I prep the night before going to bed:
Here's brunch eaten after opening Santa gifts
Farmer's casserole (dice hashbrown potatoes, onions, ham, cheddar cheese, eggs and cream)
Monkey bread (bread dough rolled in cinnamon sugar, topped w/ a caramel sauce - raises in fridge and put directly in oven Christmas morning)
Leftover berries

Dinner is leftovers from Christmas Eve

beadgirl said...

I'm not sure if I am still allowed to post here, but I thought I'd offer the dish I make. Our Christmas dinner plans themselves are probably not what you are looking for, because Mr. Beadgirl loves to cook and he likes to make a traditional roast goose and fixings. The next day, though, when my mother and brother come to visit, I cook a pernil (I think it is called pork shoulder in English?) which is low maintenance. The day before (some point during Christmas Eve day for you) rub the marinade (which takes 1 minute to put together) on the pork and stick it in the fridge. Christmas morning stick the pork in the oven at a low temperature and let it cook a long time (it'll make the house smell wonderful). Close to dinner time toss together a salad or roast some veggies all together. Some bread or potatoes, too, and maybe some cider mulling on the stove and you have a fairly low-key dinner.

geeklady said...

Well, my parents and siblings aren't Catholic, so when I was about 8, my mom declared she wasn't cooking on Christmas Day. We started having the big meal (and yes it's Thanksgiving Mark II) on Christmas Eve. Then on Christmas, we have a variety of soups and fresh breads.

Honestly, having cooked a couple Thanksgivings now, I don't see making 3 different soups to be THAT hugely labor saving, it only cuts down on the scheduling stress.

My inlaws, who are Catholic, don't do anything on Christmas Eve, and Christmas day varies. We've had ham, turkey, and brisket before, and it's one of the three days a year my MIL pulls out the china instead of the paper plates. Brisket is the easiest, once it just gets cooked in the crock pot.

Now I love to cook, and love Thanksgiving foods and could eat it everyday. But I would like to do something distinct and fitting for Christmas Eve and Christmas. But I've never gotten the chance, we're always at one house or another.

Barbara C. said...

It's usually just us and my mother-in-law on Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we do something we normally don't have like pot roast or steaks, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, Hawaiian rolls, and dessert.

When I was a kid my aunt would host Thanksgiving and my Mom would host Christmas. My Aunt quit hosting over ten years ago, now my parents just take my sister and nephew to Cracker Barrell for Thanksgiving and still host the big Christmas.

Charlotte said...

Christmas breakfast is a new thing for me now that I'm married, since my family growing up always opened gifts all night on Christmas Eve and then slept away the morning. Now that I'm my own "Mrs." it's a challenge. Last year I did make-ahead yogurt/berry/granola parfaits in fancy goblets the night before, then served them with orange juice and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. This year I will do a make-ahead "egg bake" the night before, which is supposed to marinate in the fridge overnight, and then just pop it in the oven on Christmas morning while we open gifts. I'll serve it with fresh fruit. I hear Santa may be leaving a whole watermelon under the tree this year, since a little boy in our home desperately wants one.

We have NEVER done turkey on Christmas. It's always been lasagna, pasties (pronounced paa-sties, not PASTEies), roast beef, cornish hens, or beef tenderloin, etc.

And dessert? Who needs dessert when you can put out a platter of Christmas cookies or the candy from stockings, etc. Keep it easy and simple, people are full-up on treats and sweets anyway.

Elizabeth said...

Nuclear family tradition on Christmas Eve: creamed chicken and veggies (AKA chicken pot pie filling) simmered all day in the slow cooker, over either biscuits or puff pastry shells. Salad. Wine, water and a sparkling juice for minors.

Christmas morning: bacon or sausages, fruit salad, eggs and homemade cardamom coffee cake or store bought Christollen, coffee, juice, mixed green salad with dijon vinaigrette.

The rest of Christmas Day is spent playing music, games and nibbling left overs. The cook is tired so the kitchen is closed.

Anonymous said...

Erin, growing up in the 50s and 60s, yes, Christmas dinner was a repeat of Thanksgiving! Today, it's just my brother and I and a close friend for Christmas dinner, and I look forward to it every year.

This year I am doing a 5# prime rib boneless roast with mashed potatoes and the ubiquitous green bean casserole. How difficult can that be?

Beforehand, there will be cooked shrimp with cocktail sauce and for dessert Creme Caramel.


Angela C. said...

My Mom used to do the whole Thanksgiving part II on Christmas but she got pretty sick of that, so in the '90's she started serving posole, tamales, hard rolls, chips and queso, and biscochitos for both Christmas Eve AND Christmas night (I love being a New Mexican!). Christmas morning after Mass has always included homemade cinnamon rolls, coffee, juice, eggs, sometimes quiche. In my little home now I usually have that for my husband and me, and I just go to my Mom's for dinner.

Karen M. Patrick said...

My family has always done it this way
Christmas Eve: Soup, sandwiches, football, and presents, with Midnight Mass to follow for those able to attend(My mom is 1 of 6 and for some reason my grandparents didn't relish having to get all the kids up early on Christmas morning)
Christmas Day: Breakfast casserole around 11 and stockings, napping as needed and leftovers from night before if hungry.

It's easy and it works when it's just a couple of us and when 20+ cousins show up.

Amy said...

Christmas Eve with my family is always a seafood extravaganza with a smattering of pasta dishes and lots of cookies.

Christmas morning we open presents and mom prepares a fairly elaborate brunch, complete with fruit and nut tray and breakfast casseroles. Then mass.

Christmas day we spend with my husbands family (which is LARGE...12 siblings on his dad's side). That's potluck with all the typical casseroles and sweets.

Christmas dinner is at my mom's house again. She does something different every year. This year she's cooking two ducks. I don't really know what else, but there will probably be rolls and several sides. Then more cookies and pies :-)